Richard Pryor III (C’20), Historian: Veteran Sewanee Purple writer recounts his journey towards a major in history

Pictured: Richard Pryor III (C’20). Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).

By Erin Elliot
Staff Writer

Richard Pryor (C’20) did not enter Sewanee with the intent of becoming a history major, but rather imagined himself majoring in politics.  When general education requirements brought Pryor to professor Nick Roberts’ “History of Jerusalem” class, Pryor first became interested in the prospect of a history focus.  Now, more than three years later, he has successfully presented his thesis as a history major at the University of the South.

“For reference,” said Pryor, “my mother is a historian.  So I just thought, ‘oh no, there’s no way I’m gonna do what my mom does.’ I think half my family has at least one degree in history.”  After that first class with Dr. Roberts, Pryor recounted that he was “still kind of resistant to it. So I considered doing IGS because… [the major] is full of history classes anyways.”

By the end of his second semester at Sewanee, Pryor experienced a shift in academic goals; he began leaning more and more heavily towards a history major until his focus became solidified in South African history, particularly in relation to evangelism and the effects of western missionaries on the region in the 20th century.  

“I just kind of stumbled into southern African history because it was a class, it fit my schedule, it seemed interesting,” Pryor explained. “I think, like, twelve people were in it. I stumbled into it, and I haven’t left. And the professor who I had for that class two-plus years ago is my advisor.”

Alongside a major in history, Pryor is also a religious studies minor.  “Academically, I think they work really well together,” said Pryor. “I’m currently discerning a call of the priesthood in the Episcopal church, so I’m looking at either going to seminary and/or eventually doing a Ph.D. in history.”  

With this experience in religion combined with an expertise in history, Pryor hopes to explore the truth of the missionary conquest of South Africa and its surrounding regions.  “One of the things I love about history,” said Pryor, “is that you get the chance to shatter these ideas—you know, these very strongly-upheld cultural ideas that we all hold in, well, what we would call ‘historical memory.’ And sometimes they’re just so far away from what actually happened. It’s super interesting.”

This thesis area is, according to Pryor, in great need of more scholars–particularly in the context of this geographical region. “If you just look at the discrepancies in the American educational system,” Pryor stated, “and in the University system… you know, the amount of people who do American history versus those who do African history… it’s just mind-boggling, how few Africanists there are in the field. And I mean part of that is proven by how few people there are that I would actually want to direct my Ph.D. thesis or what have you. So to some extent, I have a duty to the academy to do that, and on the other hand – I mean, religiously – I think I have a duty as a man of faith to be a historian. So my work focuses, at least right now, on a missionary named Ray Phillips.”  

Phillips was a Michigan native who moved to South Africa and stayed there for forty years.  As Pryor explained, “Ray created spaces for [native South Africans] to interact that were very western. Which is how missionaries in South Africa have always worked, is that you always have to conform to some sense of ‘western-ness’ to partake in what they offered.”

Pryor’s thesis explores Phillips’ idea of “Abundant Life,” which describes how people need work, play, love, and worship.  

“At large,” Pryor said, “it’s this understanding of how the missionary encounter shifted over that period of forty years. I’m an Episcopalian.  So there’s this thing called the Doctrine of Discovery, this idea of westerners going out and colonizing lands for God, which we have prayerfully discerned how to respond to as 21st-century people. However, we need to tell similar stories from the missionary work we conducted across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’d like to think that, as a Christian, it’s the right thing to do to tell those stories as well.”